Kroger shares fall on cautious year-end view

Reuters

Dec 5 (Reuters) - Kroger Co, the biggest U.S.supermarket operator, on Thursday reported slightlylower-than-expected overall quarterly sales and joined otherretailers in taking a cautious stance on the remainder of 2013,sending its shares down 4 percent.

One of every seven Americans took a hit on Nov. 1 when a $5billion cut in food stamps, the first across-the-board reductionin the history of the decades-old federal anti-hunger program,began. Affected shoppers have gotten some relief from lowergasoline prices and are believed to be cutting back on purchasesof discretionary items, such as clothing, experts say.

A shorter holiday selling season and slow economic recoveryalso make it "a little more difficult" to forecast results forthe current quarter, Chief Financial Officer Mike Schlotman saidon a conference call with analysts.

Kroger, the top-performing mainstream U.S. grocer,maintained its forecast for full-year identical supermarketsales growth, excluding fuel, in the range of 3 percent to 3.5percent and annual profit of $2.73 to $2.80 per share.

The Cincinnati-based company, which owns the Ralphs, Smith'sand Food 4 Less chains, said net income was $299 million, or 57cents per share, in the third quarter ended Nov. 9, down from$317 million, or 60 cents, a year earlier.

Excluding items ranging from taxes to settlement paymentsand merger-related costs, earnings per share rose to 53 centsfrom 46 cents, Kroger said.

On that basis, the results met the analysts' averageestimate, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Sales including fuel were $22.5 billion, below analysts'estimates of $22.75 billion. Kroger executives noted that theretail price of gasoline was down about 8 percent during thequarter and that total gallons sold showed solid growth.

Identical-store sales, which include results from storesopen without expansion or relocation for five full quarters,were up 3.5 percent for the latest quarter, excluding the saleof gasoline.

Kroger executives earlier this year vowed to deliver higherprofits amid intense competition from retailers ranging fromsupermarket operator Safeway Inc and discounter Wal-MartStores Inc to dollar stores and convenience marts.

Shares in Kroger were down 4 percent at $39.87 in morningtraining, while Safeway fell 3.1 percent, and Wal-Mart declined1.4 percent.

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